Shortly after Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation of a “limited” national emergency. This proclamation cited no statutory or inherent authority. Alden Fletcher looks to the historical record to suggest Roosevelt’s proclamation was relying on ambiguous statutes that provided for executive power to declare emergencies or take emergency action.
Fletcher finds that even as Roosevelt acted independently to issue an emergency declaration, his administration recognized that such a declaration could be regulated by Congress or reviewed by the courts. Indeed, Fletcher finds historical memos, papers, and briefings showing that the theories advanced by Roosevelt’s Justice Department implicitly accepted a flexible doctrine in part because inter-branch checks were presumed to remain open. This historic approach stands in contrast to today’s Executive Branch practice—and Fletcher concludes that today’s practitioners would do well to remember it.
Legal scholars have theorized three models of Article II’s Executive Power clause, otherwise known as the Executive Vesting clause: first the cross-reference theory, which points to specific powers under Article II, such as the appointment power; second, the Royal Residuum theory, which interprets Article II as granting wide-ranging powers possessed by the eighteenth-century British Crown; and finally, the Law Execution theory, which holds that the Executive Power Clause grants nothing more that the power to execute the laws passed by the legislature.
When applied to emergency powers, political and doctrinal consensus has coalesced around the Royal Residuum theory, granting the executive broad power to deal with emergencies so long as the executive does not run afoul of existing Constitutional or statutory prohibition. Recent scholarship, however, suggests that the original meaning of the Executive Power clause supports a “Law Execution” understanding of the clause. Building on this scholarship, Jerry Dickinson suggests that applying the original meaning of the Executive Power clause can revive a concept of liberal constitutionalism that places Madisonian checks and balances back at the center of emergency powers.
Most scholars who have tackled the internet “kill switch” subject come to a rather hasty conclusion that the President has the authority to shut down the internet under his emergency powers by invoking section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934 (codified as 47 U.S.C. § 606).
Over the years, this supposition has been debated on the fringes. Laura B. West’s article adds to that debate, brings it front and center, and argues that the current legal authorities are wholly inadequate to address the possible need to quarantine, isolate, or shutdown computers or portions of the internet or networks within the United States in a time of emergency caused by a massive cyber-attack.
Even if current domestic authorities can withstand the policy and legal scrutiny, the uncertainty and potency surrounding such authorities is surely enough to warrant new legislation that can provide “clear guidance and an enhanced ability to rapidly execute national level decisions for response options to sophisticated attack.” Accordingly, the time is now to rethink executive cyber emergency powers before there is a true need to build cyber walls.